Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Deconstructing Osama by Joan Fontcuberta

It is only fitting that a post dated on April 1 should be about photography's master of hoaxes Joan Fontcuberta and his new book Deconstructing Osama: The Truth About the Case of Manbaa Mokfhi. Fontcuberta's past fabrications have included intensely detailed histories of an ill-fated Russian space mission, the Soyuz-2 and another about a German biologist named Dr. Ameisenhaufen who documented the strange beasts he discovered while traveling in remote areas of the world. In Deconstructing Osama, Fontcuberta takes on more recent history and introduces the air of a conspiracy theory surrounding 9/11.

According to Fontcuberta, in November 2006 two photojournalists with the Qatar-based news agency Al-Zur, Mohammed ben Kalish Ezab and Omar ben Salaad, were following the trail of the leader of Al Qaeda's military wing Dr. Fasqiyta Ul-Junat when they uncovered the truth about this shadowy figure. It was revealed that this dangerous man was in reality an actor and singer named Manbaa Mokfhi who had appeared in soap operas on Arab television networks and was the public face of a MeccaCola advertising campaign that ran in Algeria and Morocco. Shortly after the discovery of his real identity, Mokfhi admitted he'd been hired to play the role of the terrorist. His current fate remains unknown as shortly after his admission he has disappeared after being subjected to an act of "extraordinary rendition." The conspiracy theory deepens as Fontcuberta explains that the attacks on September 11 may have been orchestrated in order to create a pretext for increases in spending for the weapons industry and in particular to push forward with a "missile shield." Intelligence services then invented the figure of Osama bin Laden and his associates in which to create the face of terror.

In the face of Dr. Fasqiyta Ul-Junat we may see Fontcuberta's -- they look suspiciously alike. Throughout Deconstructing Osama we follow Ul-Junat/Fontcuberta as he shows up in photographs fighting in Afghanistan and in the company of bin Laden. The photographs, obviously doctored and very tongue-in-cheek, propel us through Fontcuberta's audacious claims and bring to mind his usual concern with truthfulness in photography.

His hoaxes are so complex, part of the fun is in deconstructing Fontcuberta. For instance his choice of naming the two photojournalists after characters that appeared in Tintin comics or the fact that the last known stop of Ul'Junat's plane during his extraordinary rendition was in Palma de Mallorca, Spain which happened to have exhibited Deconstructing Osama at the Fundacio Pilar i Joan Miro. And, who is that familiar looking westerner who is obviously Al Qaeda’s rare photobook specialist?

Deconstructing Osama is an extremely provocative book that works in very sophisticated ways. In keeping with his other books, Fontcuberta tells his story through photographic documentation and text but what I find fascinating here is that all of the text, with the exception of eight pages of English at the end, is in Arabic. The main body of text is not translated. Fontcuberta's strategy of keeping us as much out of the loop as in it strikes the perfect chord of our current state of affairs. It is as if once again, Western eyes are left to see the surface of terrorism and radical Islamic fundamentalism without being able to probe deeper. Since those of us who are unfamiliar with Arabic can't read along, the photographs serve as prompts for us to try and connect the dots and piece together the story which inevitably leads to visual stereotyping. While looking at the photographs I could almost make out how the photographs could be catalogued -- here is Ul-Junat at a rally in support of bin Laden; here is Ul-Junat in the caves of Tora Bora; here is the last known photograph of Ul-Junat before his extraordinary rendition; here is Ul-Junat being remembered as a martyr by young children.

Deconstructing Osama published by Actar is perfectly packaged to resemble a book that might be crafted in Afghanistan. From its thick folded leather cover and string binding to the thin interior pages with their over-the-top decorative borders this book tries to hold on tightly to its credibility in every way possible.

In many ways the tongue-in-cheek nature of this book does little to cover the anger that possibly inspired it. Many of us would like to find an outlet for venting against the injustices that we see transpiring daily. Fontcuberta has found a voice who's tone will anger some but for most it will serve as an entertaining and yet meaningful distraction.


Book Available Here (Deconstructing Osama)


Gary said...

While I agree with pretty much everything you say, I find Deconstructing Osama less satisfying than Fontcuberta's other major hoax books: Fauna and Sputnik.

Why? It certainly isn't the packaging. As a total concept -- text, pictures, paper, arrangement, binding -- the materials in Deconstructing Osama are far more cohesive than the 'hoax in a traditional book' format of Fauna and Sputnik.

Nor is it the conceit itself. The notion that Al Qaeda is populated by actors hired by a nebulous conspiracy for nefarious aims has more topical appeal than the details of a failed Russian space mission or miscellaneous evolutionary anomalies.

The problem, for me, is that, in contrast to the earlier projects, I bring more knowledge (baggage?) about the topic to this project than the others. Where a typical reader may have heard of the Victorian hunt for natural curiosities or the differences between the Soviet and American space programs, they lack any significant knowledge of the details. Thus, Fontcuberta's earlier projects were constructed on a blank slate and the worlds Fontcuberta constructed become totally immersive. In contrast, I find that the backstory in Deconstructing Osama constantly bumps up against my own knowledge of current events. As a result, rather than suspending belief and immersing myself in the hoax world, I'm constantly reminded of its constructed nature.

This may, on some level, signal that Deconstructing Osama is more thoroughly postmodern than the earlier projects. But, for me, it reduces the artistic stature of the work.

tim atherton said...

you know that's Martin Parr in the picture sequence you posted, don't you...

Anonymous said...


Yes...That's what I meant by "that familiar looking westerner who is obviously Al Qaeda’s rare photobook specialist?"

Anonymous said...

i saw the show in palma de mallorca and i can assure you the one or two tourists who happened upon it were completely taken in, remember the text is in arabic and the exhibition itself only had captions and a brief introduction.

however, if you are familiar with fontcubiertas' work, it is easy to see as "method" so it is easy to be sceptical, but this exhibition worked vey well, producing an equal mix of confusion and laughter.

the book was printed in and edition of 500.

Anonymous said...

Martin Parr is like a Jack in the Box!

Anonymous said...

Oh, I tought that 'Fine Photobooks auction at Christie's' was Fontcuberta's latest book...

Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

I think that you will enjoy this gallery site:


About the "German doctor" collecting zoological specimen. Thanks for a great blog by the way!